The “Ethic of Being”

Image of God

This week in Created and Called for Community at Messiah College we are exploring the Judeo-Christian creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2.  On Monday we read the scriptural text and yesterday we discussed Old Testament theologian Bruce Birch‘s essay “In the Image of God” from his book (with Larry L. Rasmussen) The Predicament of the Prosperous

Birch begins his essay with a story:

A socially committed pastor once said to me after I had spoken on biblical understandings of hunger issues, “That was interesting, but we really don’t have time to be reading the Bible.  People are starving out there.”

I asked my students to respond to this story.  Some of them related to this pastor.  Others, it was clear to me, had never thought deeply about social issues and thus could not relate to the pastor’s sense of urgency.

Birch continues:

…Christian social witness in our time has become chiefly identified with the “doing” side of the Christian moral life. “What shall we do about _____? ”  You can fill in any issue of concern: peace, racism, poverty.  The emphasis is on decision-making, strategy, and action…The Bible, however, does not make decisions for us or plan courses of action.  Attempts to use the Bible as a rule book are not very successful.  There are, of course, broad moral imperatives, such as the command to love our neighbor, which are of central importance, but the church is left with the struggle to decide what the loving act toward the neighbor might be in a given situation.  Many issues our society faces–nuclear war, environmental damage–were not anticipated at all by the biblical communities.  Even when we share a common concern with those communities, such as feeding the hungry, we must make decisions and take actions in a complex global economic system totally unlike anything imagined in the biblical tradition.

While it took a few minutes for my Christian students to get beyond the idea that “attempts to use the Bible as a rule book are not very successful,” we all agreed with Birch that the scriptures do not offer specific strategies, action steps, or policies for how to deal with pressing social issues in the world.  Instead, I suggested, the Bible offers what I called (for lack of a better term) “first principles” for building specific responses to social concerns in a “complex” 21st-century world.

Birch writes:

Does this make the Bible remote or irrelevant to our Christian social concern?  By no means!  Alongside the concern for the ethics of “doing” lies an ethics of “being.”  Christian social concern requires not only that we ask what we should do in a broken world but also that we ask who we are to be.  The shaping of decision-makers is as important as the shaping of the decision.  As we enter and are nurtured by the Christian community, we form values, perspectives, and perceptions that inform our deciding and acting.  The identity we bring with us as Christians deeply affects our participation in ministering to a broken world.

There was a lot to think about here.  We returned to Birch’s story about the socially-conscious pastor.  While Messiah College is committed to service, and students will get multiple opportunities to serve during their years as a student, Messiah is fundamentally a Christian college–a place of intellectual and spiritual formation.  College is a unique experience.  It is a time to think, learn, and study.  Stanley Hauerwas and John Henry Newman have already taught us that college is a time to prepare for a life of service to the church and the world.  Students should not feel guilty about spending more time thinking and reflecting about the world than they do acting in the world.  The time to act will come, but right now they need to learn who they are.  They need to think about what Birch calls the “ethics of being.”

So who are we?  What does the Christian tradition teach us about what it means to be “human? At this point I introduced my students to the word “humanism.” Back when I was a college student at an evangelical school, “humanism” had a negative connotation.  It was often preceded by the adjective “secular.” Secular humanists, we were told, lurked around every corner trying to undermine Christianity and convince young people to abandon their faith. Secular humanism was the work of the devil. It was corroding Christian values.  We studied “apologetics” in order to intellectually defeat secular humanism.

But I was pleasantly surprised to learn only one student–a thirty or forty-something non-traditional student–knew what I meant when I referenced “secular humanism.” The fact that my students did not come with the cultural war baggage of the 1980s and 1990s allowed us to explore more freely the historic meaning of humanism–the study of what it means to be a human being in this world.

Any exploration of Christian humanism should begin in Genesis 1 and 2.

Birch spends a significant part of his essay interpreting this passage. We did not have time to examine all of his exegesis, so I tried to narrow our discussion to a few of his points.  Birch writes:

We know the God of blessing not only as the Creator who called the world into being but in the ongoing reliability of the created order and in the divine presence that sustains life in all its week-to-week rhythms.  This aspect of God is present with us in all moments and is universally known by all humanity.  God’s intentions in creation is for all to experience shalom, a Hebrew word meaning wholeness.

We talked about shalom.  Some students identified it as a greeting.  Others associated it with “peace.” I asked them to call out some antonyms for “peace” and they responded with words like “chaos,” “war,” “conflict,” and “division.”  Indeed war, conflict, and division undermine shalom.  These things rip at the wholeness God intended for His creation.

Birch then offers four themes from Genesis 1 and 2 to help us think about “what it means to be given life as a creature and to live that life in relationship to God and the rest of the created order.”

  1. Humanity is created in the image of God.  On Monday, during our discussion of Genesis 1:26-27, I introduced students to the idea of Imago Dei. The Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible, as New Testament scholar Scot McKnight shows us, translates the word behind “image” with the word eikon.  We talked about the role of “icons” in Christian worship.  Icons are paintings, statues, or figures that aid us in our devotion to God.  Genesis 1 teaches us that we are living eikons.  Much in the same way that monuments try to help us understand more fully what happened in a particular historic place, the creation story teaches us that our lives are monuments–eikons that should point people toward a deeper understanding of God.  We are image bearers. I told my students that the larger culture will try to tell them who they are, but Genesis 1 and 2 will always remind of them of their true identity.
  2. Genesis 1 and 2 also affirms the “goodness of creation.”  God did not create everything in His image, but everything God created is “good.” We talked a bit about the implications of this truth for our relationship with the animal kingdom and the environment.
  3. This passage also reminds us of the “interrelatedness of creation.” As Birch writes, “We are created for relationship to God, to others, and to nature.” In a college or university such “interrelatedness” manifests itself in the liberal arts curriculum and the way it challenges students to see the connectedness (to use Ernest Boyer’s phrase) of their general education coursework.
  4. Finally, Birch warns us about what he calls “the distortion of hierarchical thinking about creation.”  Over the centuries, Christians have misused “God’s commission giving humanity dominion over the earth” in such a way that has led to “a hierarchical  understanding that divided the relationship of the human to God and to nature.”  Birch adds: “Early in the history of the Christian church a subdivided hierarchy became the standard: God, males, females, other races than white, Jews, animals, plants, and the earth itself.  This hierarchical understanding of creation became the foundation for entire superstructures of racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism.”

This last theme was the perfect way to open-up a discussion of the final section of Birch’s essay: “The Brokenness of Creation.” We are created in the image of God and called to pursue relationships with God and His “good” creation. But Genesis 3 teaches us that we are also sinners who have abused the human freedom God has given to us. “Sin,” Birch writes, “is the word we use to describe how shalom, wholeness, gets broken.” Or to use McKnight’s phrase, we are “cracked eikons.”  I wish we had more time to discuss the implications of sin, but there will be other opportunities later in the class.

In the end, I encouraged the students to see this discussion of Genesis 1 and 2 (with the help of Bruce Birch) as a starting point for both future class discussions and all of their future college work.  If time permitted, I would have asked students to think about what this “ethic of being” might mean for their college majors.  How does the fact that we are simultaneously image-bearers and sinners help us think about our disciplines and professions? (I tried to do this for the field of history in my book Why Study History?).  And how, in the wake of the Cross and the Resurrection, might we work to restore shalom to a broken creation?

Tomorrow we are reading James Weldon Johnson’s poem The Creation.  Follow along here.